*The best Civil War museum in the region is surely the Sweeny Collection now held by the National Parks Service at Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield, which will be open through November.
Closer and very good are state collections at Lexington, Topeka, Lone Jack and Mine Creek, just down the state line in Kansas.
But look around. Little treasure troves of Civil War artifacts and stories are all around us in county museums and other collections. The Star visited several and asked the curators or directors to single out just one item that they thought was unique or special to their collection.
It often wasn’t easy to choose.*
1. St. Joseph Museum
Sarah Elder, curator of collections, is proud of its new displays and especially fond of a piece of cutlery used by Gen. Elijah Gates.
Fighting from Arkansas to Atlanta, the tough rebel was captured three times and wounded five. In the vicious battle at Franklin, Tenn., both his arms were hit; Union surgeons amputated the left. It didn’t stop him from escaping in about three weeks.
Later sheriff, state treasurer and U.S. marshal, Gates got along with this implement — a cutting knife with fork prongs at the end.
“Even losing an arm in battle, having this, no problem,” Elder noted.
2. Missouri State Museum
It is not the porcelain-face doll that intrigues curator Julie Kemper, but the toy’s pretty white gown,the “Jakey Dress,” with the delicate pink print.
Before her Uncle Jacob “Jake” Romans went off to a Union outfit, he delighted 4-year-old Estella Lindsey with a fancy dress.
“In 1864, a group of men came to the house, some kind of guerrilla fighters, and took what they wanted and then started to burn the Lindseys’ possessions,” Kemper said in the Capitol’s new and revolving Civil War exhibit.
But one raider relented and retrieved from the flames the dress for the sobbing child. When Estella outgrew it, her mother made the doll’s dress from the fabric.
“It was something that she could treasure through the war.”
3. Kansas Historical Society
The flag of the First Kansas Colored Infantry is a favorite of Blair Tarr, curator of the Kansas Museum of History in west Topeka. He thinks the regiment was ignored too long.
“Out here on the frontier, black soldiers really led the way in the Civil War. Everybody credits the 54th Massachusetts (heroes in the film “Glory”), but these guys were in the service long before the 54th was even created.”
4. Jackson County Civil War Museum
Dan Hadley, vice president of the battlefield museum in Lone Jack, points to an old broadside advertising the 24th battle anniversary picnic at Lone Jack. As years went by, the once largely local and Southern event drew all from the area.
“Thousands of people showed up. It became one of the biggest events of Jackson County.”
Politicians would speechify, contests would be held, ice cream freezers would be cranked.
One young attendee who had come in the family’s wagon would return as a politician to give his own stump speeches from the band stand. Even later, Harry Truman advocated building the battlefield’s circular, stone museum building.
5. Lexington Historical Museum
A great many Civil War weapons found their way to a great many display cases across our land. The route of Col. James Mulligan’s sword to this one is a little off the beaten track.
The Union officer, defeated at the siege and battle of Lexington, offered his blade to Gen. Sterling Price, who graciously declined. But it was stolen and hidden by a rebel deserter.
Surfacing after a half century, it was given in 1912 to Mulligan’s widow — the unlucky colonel had been killed in 1864 at Winchester, Va. After her death, said volunteer director Roger Slusher, “her daughter, who was here as a baby, sent the sword back to the town as a thank you.”
That was in 1917. The recipient stuck it for safekeeping in a bank vault, where it stayed hidden for another half century and more.
6. Miami County Historical Museum
The thing that one notices first about this museum in Paola, Kan., is the photographs, old portraits blown up huge, marching in chronological order around the room.
The second thing, perhaps, is the bullet hole square in the forehead of Abraham “Bullet Hole” Ellis. Put there by William Clarke Quantrill when Ellis unwisely looked out a window during a raid in 1862.
“Quantrill said he didn’t mean to shoot him, but it was a good shot,” said director/curator Joe Hursey.
Oh, well then, fine. But wasn’t Ellis drilled in Aubry, in the next county? Yes, Hursey agreed, but Ellis was superintendent of schools in Miami (then Lykins) County. Before the war, he had approved Quantrill as a teacher, which is why the bushwhacker considered Ellis his friend and apologetically mopped the blood off his face.
7. Battle of Lexington State Historic Site
Somebody in Waverly thought it just fine to take a shot at the Federal gunboat passing by — until the gunboat tied up and began lobbing fat cannonballs into the little town.
“A great scattering of personnel and gentlemen but little other damage” resulted. Among the “personnel” was a Cherokee who scouted for Quantrill, Squirrel Tail. His picture is above the shell, which much resembles a bowling ball.
“It’s very heavy, but was used on a newel post by a family,” said resource manager Janae Fuller. “That’s why it has the hole drilled in it.”
8. Ray County Museum
In the Civil War Room, Linda Emley first shows a Union uniform, then an unusual musket, then a flag.
But what’s that in a case beneath a revolver?
An old envelope is printed with the caricature of Jefferson Davis hanging by the neck — after a whiskey barrel has been rolled from beneath his feet.
Mostly in the first two years of the war, both sides printed perhaps 6,000 different, collectible envelopes with patriotic sentiments. The Northern printers were not adverse to execution themes or boldly displaying “Death to Traitors” on their wares.
As the reporter leaves the old Richmond house, Emley asks: “Would you like to see the meat grinder that was at the house where Bloody Bill Anderson had his last meal?”
9. Mine Creek Battlefield State Historical Site
What Arnold Scofield likes most in the collection here is a fast-firing Spencer carbine that was actually used by a victorious Yankee on this battlefield. But it’s not here right now.
So we look into a case showing all the different types of bullets dug up around the site. And the eye seizes on a chunk of corrosion that most would throw away, an old lock plate that once held a flint.
It was old even for the Civil War, when most handguns had graduated to revolving. There’s probably a story behind it. Another ill-armed Southern recruit who decided to join up with Maj. Gen. Sterling Price in the 1864 invasion of Missouri and then found himself in hurried retreat through this part of Kansas. What became of him?
“They grabbed a weapon off the mantle and they jumped on their favorite horse and they joined up,” said Schofield, site historian and a premier Civil War authority in the region. “They were the ordnance’s officer’s nightmare.”
10. Bates County Museum
The old ledger indicates that the Bates Countians were, if not God-fearing, at least a taxpaying people. Line after line, numbers and names in that beautiful script show their property and the amount to be rendered unto the county government.
These folks got ripped off.
“At least the 60 percent who didn’t come back,” agreed museum director Peggy Buhr.
The ledger is from 1863 — before September — when every last farmer and merchant, woman and slave, child and dog, more than 6,000 in all, were forced to leave fields to fall fallow and property to be burned. Because Bates had no towns with a Union garrison, it suffered worse under Order No. 11 than Jackson or Cass counties.
How did the old book survive? The courthouse was burned. Who protected the book? Where was it taken? When was it returned?
Buhr: “These are all mysteries.”